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Character Driven Picture Books

By Denise Schurr

I recently visited the children’s department at my local Barnes & Noble and found a whole wall dedicated to famous book characters. Classic titles as well as more recent ones lined the shelves and I stopped to get acquainted with a couple.

Ellie by Mike Wu puts a new spin on the dilemma of wanting to help, but not knowing how. Ellie and the other animals at the zoo want to help clean up in a last ditch effort to keep the zoo doors from closing for good. Every animal has a special talent they put to use, everyone except for Ellie. Until, she finds a paint brush and adds some amazing artwork which brings crowds of people. I love the message for young kids. So often children want to help with big or small projects but they don’t know how. It’s important to show them they don’t have to be big to help or even have a special talent. Showing up, pitching in, and having the desire is what makes a difference.

Thelma the Unicorn by Aaron Blabey is a timely story of a horse who thinks her life would be better as a unicorn. When she is given the opportunity to disguise herself as a unicorn, she finds that being a unicorn isn’t as magical as she thought it was. It’s easy to think that if we were someone else, lived somewhere else, had other circumstances, our life would be perfect. But, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side and there are people in our lives, who love us for who we are right now. All you have to do, is you.

If I had more time, I would have loved to read more. Who are your favorite children’s book characters of new or old?

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Push your characters off a cliff

You’ve heard people say that you need to be mean to your characters – you may have heard the recommendation to have your protagonist climb up a tree only to steal their ladder, and then throw rocks at them.

This idea of being mean can also be thought about as keeping the flame burning – if you set up a problem for your character, and then resolve it too quickly, then you release all the tension in your chapter (or maybe in your book, depending on what it is). And tension is what keeps us reading.

Imagine your main character wants to go to Harvard. It’s all they want. She rushes home and the letter is waiting right on top of the stack. She takes a deep breath, and opens the envelope. She reads it – and she got in. Hooray! But she didn’t worry that long (on the page) so neither did we, as readers.

Imagine instead she rushes home. She takes a deep breath. She paws through the mail. The last letter on the bottom of the stack – is her letter from Harvard. She takes a deep breath. Should she open it? It’s not thin, but it’s not fat either. She tosses it into the air, and her beloved dog, a Great Pyrenees, grabs the letter out of the air and races right out the doggy door. She struggles to open the backdoor – where is he? Where is he? She finds him behind a tree, slobbering all over it and chewing on it. She grabs it from him – but tearing it out of his teeth rips off a chunk. She opens it. “We are writing to inform you –“ and that’s the chunk that is missing. She doesn’t know if she got in! Will she call the school? Ask her guidance counselor? How will she find out???

These extra moments of stress and strain amp up the emotion. If you put your character on the hook, and then immediately take them off the hook, you lose all these opportunities to keep your reader furiously engaged to find out oh my goodness what is going to happen next?

You can keep tension both by lengthening the amount of time it takes for resolution (in this instance, I added in a dog and ripped letter) or by putting the resolution of one chapter into the next chapter. My father used to read me Tros of Samothrace by Talbot Mundy as a child – and I don’t know if the chapter always ended with Tros hanging off a cliff or if my father, with his understanding of story, would just stop reading at that moment. But I do know that I couldn’t wait for the next night when we’d pick up where we left off and find out what happened. Give those moments of wonder and breathless anticipation to your reader – by using the content within your chapters and in your chapter breaks.

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Teachers and Librarians and Authors, Oh My!

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

This past weekend, I had the privilege of running three incredible events for the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. My position on our board of directors is called, “PAL Liaison,” which means I connect traditionally published authors and illustrators with teachers, librarians, booksellers, parents, and of course, children.

The first, and most elaborate event, was hosting a table in the Exhibits Hall at the annual Colorado Council of the International Reading Association (CCIRA) Conference at the Marriott DTC, on the outskirts of Denver, Colorado. With over 1500 teachers and librarians in attendance, you can imagine the buzz and excitement surrounding us. I arranged for twenty different authors and illustrators to join me in two-hour shifts where they showcased their books, met teachers and librarians, and gave away swag. Here are a few creative displays:        

It was a joy to see our SCBWI PAL (published and listed) members share their passion with the people who love their books. For many years, I attended this conference as one of those teachers. I met Kate DiCamillo, Will Hobbs, and Lois Lowry at this very same venue. I was totally star struck when I had the opportunity to be in the company of these literary rock stars! This weekend, I am happy to report that we had our own share of squeals and howls as teachers won door prizes, took photos with our authors and illustrators, and went away with pencils, hand-painted rocks, and gobs of stickers. Yippee!

My next program was leading a “Speed Dating” session with authors, illustrators, and educators. There were eleven stations set up around the room which enabled our authors and illustrators to spend quality “one-on-one” time with teachers and librarians. Some attendees wanted to know how to  write for children. Others were interested in learning more about using specific books in their classrooms. No two conversations were alike. This went on for eight minutes until it was time for the next date. The only problem I had was moving the participants on to the next chair. Everyone was so engaged and animated! At one point, the chatting became so loud, other conference attendees began poking their heads into our room to see what was going on. They smiled and nodded when they saw our rollicking book party! It was so much fun that one teacher asked if we could do this next year as an exclusive luncheon. It certainly is something to consider.

    

For my third act, I hosted a happy hour “meet and greet” in downtown Denver for authors and librarians. As luck would have it, the American Library Association (ALA) was holding its mid-winter conference at the Colorado Convention Center this same weekend. Despite frigid weather and blowing snow, a dozen of us made our way down to the Greedy Hamster on Saturday night for appetizers and drinks with a group of friendly YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) librarians from around the country. Many of our debut authors got to experience the thrill of giving away pre-released books to these lucky book lovers. Huzzah!

    

Connecting authors and illustrators with their adoring fans is definitely the best job in the world. I can’t wait for our next event!

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Writer’s Block…

It is a perfect day for writing.

I have characters impatient to move forward, ready to endure things getting a little worse before they get better. My plot is waiting to advance and my characters are growing and changing, all according to the outline that I hammered out months ago. Two people I created are literally trapped in a tree and the person they are hiding from is striding toward them. They need me.

So why can’t I write?

I keep trying, but every time I sit down to write, I come up blank. I write a sentence or two and it seems so… wrong somehow. I think back to the way the story flowed out of me in the beginning, the characters putting on their personalities like layers of clothes, filling out and surprising me with their actions and words. It was fun and exciting. I anticipated my writing time, eager to watch how the story I wanted to tell would find its way into the world.

But now, my frightened characters hide in the branches. I need to write the words get them out of this chapter and into the next. But there they wait, feeling confused and abandoned. I know them and they are very, very disappointed in me.

It turns out that I am not the first writer to experience a phenomenon known as writer’s block. Merriam-Webster defines writer’s block as “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.”

Looking for answers, I decided to survey what some of my favorite authors had to say about writer’s block. They provided interesting and sometimes contradictory advice, but I was buoyed by the wisdom that their words spoke to me.

  •  Hilary Mantel: “If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.”
    • Lesson from Hilary: It’s okay to take a break and to wait for the right way to tell the story to come to me. Plus, it’s fine to find some time to bake that pie. Oh… and scowling does not help.
  • Orson Scott Card: “Writer’s block is my unconscious mind telling me that something I’ve just written is either unbelievable or unimportant to me, and I solve it by going back and reinventing some part of what I’ve already written so that when I write it again, it is believable and interesting to me. … [If] you haven’t solved the problem that caused your unconscious mind to rebel against the story, it still won’t work – for you or for the reader.”
    • Lesson from Orson Scott: I need to pay attention to what I have written and analyze if it feels true. If not, I’ll need to change it and make it both believable and interesting in order to move forward. My unconscious mind will be telling me things my conscious mind does not know.
  • Margaret Atwood: “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
    • Lesson from Margaret: My book is not going to arrive perfectly, so obsessing about each word or sentence is counterproductive. I can revise a bit as I go, but I can always go back and change everything if I wish. My first draft is just one part of the process and I need to get it down from beginning to end, then see about moving it closer to perfect.
  • Maya Angelou: “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’”
    • Lesson from Maya: Some of what I write will be boring and awful. But that “the muse” is waiting and inspiration will come when I am ready for it…or when it is ready for me.
  • Jeffrey Deaver: “I’ve often said that there’s no such thing as writer’s block; the problem is idea block. When I find myself frozen… it’s usually because I’m trying to shoehorn an idea into the passage or story where it has no place.”
    • Lesson from Jeff: I need to trust the story and allow myself to veer from my plan if something isn’t quite right. I need to let go of some things, things that seemed important and essential at one time, and leave it out if it doesn’t belong any more.
  • Barbara Kingsolver: “Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”
    • Lesson from Barbara: I need to make sure that the book is my own, not what I think other people want the book to be. My book is historical fiction for children; I worry about making it marketable, politically correct, and always age appropriate. I need to set aside those worries for now and just tell the story.
  •  Mark Twain: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
    • Lesson from Samuel: I shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the entirety of the book, but just move forward one incident at a time. If that is how he got that fence whitewashed and Huck to his own funeral, I can get those characters out of the tree.
  • Warren Ellis: “Writer’s block? This is when a writer cannot write? Then that person isn’t a writer anymore. I’m sorry, but the job is getting up in the fucking morning and writing.”
    • Lesson from Warren Ellis: I’ve never read anything by Warren Ellis, in fact I’ve never heard of Warren Ellis, but I appreciated what he had to say. I probably just need to get over myself and just write the @#$%$#ing book.

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12 x 12

Image result for 12 x 12 challenge logo

All last year I was busy taking classes for my LDE (Linguistically Diverse Educator) Certification for work. It was valuable because I was able to learn best practices that I could immediately apply in the classroom and the courses helped me to grow as an educator. It also meant I had to sacrifice time away from family, friends, and writing.

Starting the new year, I feel like a bear waking up from hibernation. While it was important for me to focus on school last year, now, I will have more time to do the things I enjoy. To help get back into the writing saddle, I’ve decided to take a writing challenge. I signed up for 12 x 12, with goal of writing 12 picture book drafts by the end of the year. It’s broken up into manageable chunks of writing one picture book draft each month.

Going to conferences, taking classes, and participating in online challenges and courses is a great way to help jump start motivation. It’s also a great way to hold yourself accountable and learn the craft of writing for children.

What classes, courses, or conferences (in person or online) have you found to be beneficial?

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Leaping into Genres

By Susan Wroble

This fall, I took a leap. I had wanted to take a more active role in the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI. When an opportunity arose, I volunteered to co-lead a new writing group — the Denver South Connect and Critique.

Working with my co-leader, the talented Judy Rose (author of the award-winning Look Both Ways in Barrio Blanco) has been a delight. Having the opportunity to mentor some of the members who are new to SCBWI is incredibly fulfilling. But what I didn’t expect what how much I would learn and get out of this job.

Judy and I constructed a survey to try to find out the wants and needs of this new group and we passed it out at the first meeting. Understanding children’s literature terms and genres scored high. We divvied up the presentation work for meeting number two, Judy taking terms while I took genres. After all, how hard could explaining the difference between Middle Grade and Young Adult, Fiction and Non-Fiction, or Literary and Commercial actually be?

Hard, it turns out. For every site I turned to, there were slightly different definitions. I finally chose a primary source to settle the disputes (Laura Backes of Children’s Book Insider). Then I made a spreadsheet. With a background in engineering, I love trying to make tight, concise spreadsheets. Making this one clarified a lot about genres for me — I hope it does the same for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Panning for Gold

I’m a huge fan of any kind of professional development, and now that I’m focused on writing, I love finding all different kinds of ways to help expand my craft. I find real pleasure in looking through course catalogues (in particular the one for Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop for those in the Denver area) to see what class sounds like it will be just the right key to unlock some question I have. I can’t wait for the conference schedule to come out each year for the SCBWI Letters & Lines conference. I browse the 800 section in my local library. I listen to a slew of podcasts. I love learning and hearing and thinking about writing.

Whenever I walk into some type of professional development, and that classification can be broad, I try to consider them along two layers – the understood benefit and the underlying nugget of gold. Everything has an immediate impact– I took a class on book mapping to bring another level and nuance to my ability to edit full-length novels. I learned just what I thought I would – how to choose the elements to map out a book, mapping it out, and subsequently using that map to develop an editorial letter. It was a great online class that gave me a new tool that is aligned really well to my analytical left-brained side that is a part of my revision and editorial process.

But a class almost always has more to offer than what is listed in the course description. This second layer is the underlying nugget of gold. Some of the gold from this class was that I am now connected to an experienced children’s book editor, and it got me thinking about how I might expand some of my own editorial services.

The nugget of gold can be obvious, or subtle, singular, or numerous. I received a critique where one of the comments was that my protagonist was coming off as a little quiet. A few days later someone called to ask if I was interested in a class on voice. Yes! Yes, absolutely! So the immediate benefit I expected from that class was obvious. But the class was also full of nuggets of gold. It got me thinking about my writing practice, and how I was incorporating it into my daily life. In hearing others read their work in class, I learned from what they were doing. And, the best nugget of all, I got a burst of motivation to continue on my own draft.

Not every class, or course, or podcast, or book feels worth the time or expense. Sometimes it repeats information you already have, sometimes it isn’t as applicable as you thought it would be. These are the times when it’s especially critical to pan for that gold. If you take the ownership to search deeply for the underlying value, not matter how big or how small, then it will increase the benefits of every way in which you engage with your craft. It will ensure that you have spent your precious time wisely.

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Stretching My Writer Muscles, Literally

by Karen Deger McChesney

Lauren, my massage therapist: “Any areas that you want me to especially work on?”

Me: (Pointing to my triceps and forearms.) “Here and here. They’ve really been hurting.”

Lauren: “Have you been writing more?”

Her question surprised me. Lauren listened intensely as I rambled about revising, which I rarely do outside of writer circles. Then, she got her usual twinkle in her eye and briefly explained why my aches were from writing. My pride sunk. I wanted to hear that my aches were from my weightlifting or something else. Not writing! Unfair. Yes, my aches could be much worse. But, from writing? A year ago, I committed to increasing my weekly writing time – and now I have an achy-breaky upper body? Darn! As my mind melted into the land of massage, it made more sense. Like Natalie Goldberg says: “Writing is physical…like an athletic activity.”

After my massage, Lauren showed me stretches and mentioned that she works with writers (and how much she enjoys “them”). Wow! What a coincidence!

I recently interviewed Lauren about stretches for writers and to motivate myself to un-hunch and stretttcccchhhhh! Lauren has been a massage therapist and cranio-sacral practitioner (a hands-on therapy to enhance the body’s natural capacity for healing) for over 25 years, and she has taught yoga for 18 years to a wide variety of people in health clubs, yoga studios, senior centers, and other settings.

What ails writers? What do they come to you for?

Stiffness and pain in their neck, shoulders, low back and hamstring. I find that writers get so wrapped up in their writing, they go for hours without moving.

Name your top tips for writers:

1st, set a timer to go off every hour.

2nd, then, get out of your chair and stretch.

3rd, do gentle twists while you’re sitting.

Describe the correct way to sit at a computer:

Sit in a chair that allows your hips to be a little above your knees. Ideally, you want your body to be stacked, which means in alignment – your shoulder joints over your hip joints and your ears over your shoulders. Then, always be looking straight ahead at your screen, not down. If you’re not at a desk, put a pillow on your lap to lift up your laptop closer to eye level. Keep changing positions and trying different chairs.

How do we maintain good posture, especially when writing for hours and hours?

I tell my yoga students: imagine moving your right shoulder blade toward your left hip pocket and vice versa. This will open up your shoulders.

 What’s a good stretching sequence for writers?

 CHAIR TWIST: To the right, then left. Hold each side 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 WALL DOG: Hold 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EAGLE POSE: Left elbow over right, then vice versa. For maximum stretch, press elbows together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Any other stretches to add to our sequence?

PALM AND WRIST STRETCH: Push both palms and all fingers into a wall simultaneously. Hold 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TRICEP STRETCH: Bend left arm over, touch fingertips on left shoulder, then right hand over head and touch left elbow. Vice versa. Hold each side 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ARMS OVER HEAD: Hold 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What stretches should writers do while sitting?

1: CHAIR TWIST 

2: RUBBERBAND STRETCH:

Wrap rubberband around outside of fingertips.

 Then, spread thumb and fingers out. Hold 10-15 seconds.

 

 

 

 

Are there any other aches that you’ve noticed in writers?

When they’re into a really intense session (and feeling a lot of emotion) or writing for extremely long periods, they often clench their jaw. This can cause neck issues and pain. Try this: Move the tip of your tongue to the middle of the roof of your mouth. Hold for 10-20 seconds.

Your words of wisdom?

Experiment and do stretches that feel best for you.

What is your current yoga class schedule?

7-8am Wednesdays – Living Yoga Studio, Denver; 8:30-9:30am Fridays – Sol Center for Radiant Living, Georgetown.

Special thanks to Lauren Hess for her time and commitment to writers. For more information about her massage therapy and yoga class schedules, contact Lauren at lhmoscow@hotmail.com.

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by | December 6, 2017 · 3:04 pm

A Year of Logging

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

Last October, when the leaves were turning raspberry red, lemon yellow, and orange orange, I embarked on a serious mission to make myself feel more like a real writer. (www.inthewritersweb.com, Nov. 2016.) Although I took my writing seriously, it didn’t seem like I was doing enough. Like you, I spent my time setting yearly goals, working on a variety of manuscripts, submitting to agents for feedback, participating in writing/critique groups, taking classes, and going to conferences. I read blogs and books on craft. I wrote articles like this one.

But despite this dedication, I still had no offers of representation or publication to show for myself. I had gotten very close with a few agents and editors, but that golden ticket still eluded me. And, I had reached a crossroads – give up on the whole shebang or amp up my life as a writer. Obviously, I chose the second option. (First sign of being a real writer!) Now I needed a new way to prove to myself that I was getting closer; that I was doing everything possible to increase my odds.

So I came up with an idea. I decided to keep a daily log of everything I did that related to my life as a writer. As a teacher, I loved leafing through my over-stuffed lesson plan books to see how much I had accomplished with my students. There were scribbles in the corners of cramped daily squares and tattered pieces of paper shoved in between the pages. Everyday had been a whirlwind of accomplishments!

Only with writing, planning out my week in advance often went awry. On some days, it seemed like I got very little done. I’d spend hours rewriting one chapter when I thought I’d be able to do four. Or I’d plan to do a small bit of research, get caught up in the subject matter and read articles on the topic for an entire morning. Finally, it came to me out of the clear blue – a totally different approach to this problem. I would log about what I did after I did it, not before. This way, I wouldn’t be disappointed if I didn’t accomplish what I thought I should have.

I got to work. I bought a large calendar/daytimer/notebook. Then, at the end of each day, I jotted down whatever I did to further my life as a writer. And, after a year of doing this, here’s what I discovered:

 

  1. I was doing a lot. Seeing months of squares filled in with writing activities convinced me that I was doing all sorts of things to further my life as a writer. I included everything from working on my novels and going to conferences to doing research and reading books in my genre.
  2. I developed a habit. According to many experts, it takes at least 21 days to develop a new habit. And for most of us, it’s longer. By writing in my log every day for an entire year, I made being a writer a conscious part of every day.
  3. Reading counts. You must read to write. I made sure to log about the books I read, both in and out of my genre and on craft. Then I entered the titles onto my Goodreads page. I also included blogs, articles, and emails to my writing colleagues.
  4. Rewriting is very time-consuming. By writing down exactly what I did each day, I could see how long it was taking me to revise my novel. A looonnnngggg time. There was one week when I worked on my first page for five days in a row!
  5. I am part of a writing community. I saw how often I met with other writers, both individually and in groups. I included in-person writing groups, conferences and classes, as well as online blogs, workshops, emails, and texts. It was A LOT!!!
  6. I am improving my craft. I recorded all the classes I took, conferences I attended, books I read on craft, and the ways I was implementing changes into my manuscripts. So important.
  7. I took on more of a leadership role in the RMC-SCBWI. My board position as Exhibits Coordinator turned into the PAL LIAISON this year. Being involved at this level makes me feel more professional and has also has introduced me to an inspirational group of writers!

At a recent writers conference, I was thrilled to share a lunch table with renowned editor, and author of THE MAGIC WORDS, Cheryl Klein. When Cheryl asked if I wrote every day, I told her about my writing log. She liked the concept and said that a daily writing practice is the key to getting published. So maybe I’m on my way!

But here’s the main thing I discovered by keeping the log… getting published is only one part of living a writer’s life. It’s an extremely important part of the journey, but the things I wrote down in my log squares, … those are the things that make me a “real” writer. And here’s the surprising takeaway – I don’t feel the need to continue logging. A year of doing this has served its purpose. I am living the life of a writer. And I have a notebook full of scribbled-in boxes to prove it.

 

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The thing about “The thing about jellyfish”

By Susan Wroble

Ali Benjamin’s book The thing about Jellyfish has rightly won well over a dozen awards, from National Book Award Finalist to National Public Radio’s “Great Read of the Year” list. I loved the story, with its themes of friendship and grief, and its sections neatly divided by the parts of the scientific method. However, it’s not the story that startled, then amazed and finally inspired me. That came from the acknowledgements section at the back of the book.

“This story,” Benjamin wrote, “was born from a failure.” A few years earlier, she had become captivated by jellyfish. She dove into their world, learning everything she could about jellyfish and poured it all into a story. She submitted to a magazine. The magazine was interested, and kept it.

Then Benjamin waited… for a year. A year of waiting to hear. A year of waiting for her story to be published. And after a year, she did hear. The magazine no longer wanted it. The story was rejected.

 

I know what I would have done. I would have cried, then forwarded the rejection on to my writing group, The Story Spinners, knowing that they would give me the encouragement and support to keep going. Getting things published is tough, and a support group of people going through the same long process of rejection collecting makes the journey much easier to bear.

I’m not sure if Ali Benjamin did any of that. What she did do was keep going. Despite the wait, despite the rejection, she wasn’t willing to give up on jellyfish. She just delved deeper, moving beyond researching jellyfish to researching jellyfish experts. She took notes and continued to learn.

This incredible, award-winning story was what emerged. Had Benjamin’s original article been published, I am sure that it would have been fascinating. But it wouldn’t have been this. To have this book materialize out of failure served, for me, as a type of buoy – showing that what springs from the ashes of failure may be beyond our wildest dreams.

 

 

 

 

 

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